Bronze Age Textile Evidence in Ceramic Impressions: Weaving and Pottery Technology among Mobile Pastoralists of Central Eurasia

Article excerpt



In central Eurasia, the late third to early second millennium BC marks the beginning of intensified regional interaction and productive economies, specialising in pastoralism of sheep, goat and cattle (Kohl 2007; Frachetti 2008; Hanks & Linduff 2009). For decades, regional socio-economic integration among early pastoralists across the Eurasian steppe zone has been traced geographically and chronologically through the distribution of associated stylistic classes of pottery and metal objects (Chernykh 1992; Kuz'mina 2007), while other significant material classes, such as textiles, have remained more elusive. Textiles in Eurasia represent a major component of community organisation and socio-economic integration, ethnographically and archaeologically (Good 2006; Naheed & Beck in press). But poor preservation and archaeologically scattered evidence still leaves them as one of the least investigated material classes in Eurasian steppe prehistoric archaeology. The few extant studies available (Chernai 1985; Shishlina 1999) show stylistic and technological consistencies across central Eurasia, suggesting a high potential for exploring regional preference and socio-economic integration in this formative period of Eurasian prehistory.


Even though textiles are subject to poor preservation in Bronze Age central Eurasia, secondary evidence is widely recovered across the territory in the form of textile impressions in pottery that was produced using textile-lined moulds and other forming techniques (Figures 1 & 2). Here we present evidence for textiles from Begash, a newly excavated multi-period pastoral settlement in Semirech'ye in south-eastern Kazakhstan (Frachetti & Mar'yashev 2007), that offers the earliest evidence for cloth and pottery production in the eastern steppe region. The diverse array of textile prints in pottery from Begash has permitted the first in-depth study of textiles, weaving and pottery manufacture in Bronze Age south-eastern Eurasia.

Textiles from Begash

The recent excavations at the settlement Begash (Frachetti & Mar'yashev 2007) revealed textile-impressed, plain coarseware ceramics from the first phase of occupation (c. 2450 cal BC) and throughout subsequent occupation phases to the medieval period (c. fourteenth century AD) (Doumani 2009). Here we focus on the 18 samples found in the Early/Middle and Late Bronze Age phases of the site (phase 1, c. 2450-1700 cal BC; and phase 2, c. 16501000 cal BC). Casts were made of the negative textile impressions using white baking clay, rendering a positive mould of the textile impression, to accentuate the weave characteristics of the original cloth. In Figures 3-6, the casts appear convex because the sherd surface was concave (on the inside of the pot). The moulds were examined under hand magnification and photographed using a macro lens (x 10 magnification). Cloth structures were more visible in those samples where the cloth was pressed deeply into the wet clay. In some samples, the cloth structure was less visible due to shallow impressions, sherd wear or disturbance of the impression during the pot's 'wet' stage. However, in the remaining samples it was possible to detect different weaves, cloth densities, thread thicknesses, and possibly a number of raw materials used for making cloth. These are summarised in Table 1.


Description of the textiles implied

The Early/Middle Bronze Age samples from phase 1 at Begash (2450-1700 BC) include five doth/fibre-impressed sherds. Two possible weave types can be identified: interlaced weave and twining. Sample 1 might show a woven cloth impression (Figure 3a). The shallow impression prevents a close reading of the sample. However, some of the elements cross one another perpendicularly, which is typical of plain weave interlaced elements. Sample 2, by contrast, shows a weft/warp-faced cloth impression (Figure 3b). …